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Advocacy over Advice: the gift of sponsorship over mentorship in advancing women’s careers



In the workplace, achieving gender parity in leadership roles remains a pressing challenge, despite decades of efforts and initiatives. A pivotal shift from traditional mentorship to robust sponsorship programs could hold the key to unlocking this stalemate. 


For decades, executives have come away from women-only leadership programs empowered to ‘lean in’, lead and negotiate. But despite the personal learning and heightened motivation that a top-notch leadership program can catalyse, actual results as measured by women’s advancement into senior ranks have been few. Mostly because most training programs are designed to produce self-development (or to ‘fix’ the women so they can be more like the men) rather than to change the organisational network in which decisions that propel careers forward are made.


Mentorship vs. Sponsorship: understanding the difference

While mentorship has long been seen as essential for personal and professional development, offering guidance, advice, and knowledge expansion, it stops short of propelling women's careers into leadership contexts. Sponsorship, on the other hand, is where the real magic happens. Sponsors do more than advise; they advocate fiercely for their protégés, using their influence and status within an organisation to open doors, connect with key decision-makers, and actively push for the advancement of their sponsees. 


Why sponsorship is essential to bridge the gap in leadership

A McKinsey study underscored that women’s slower career progression is not due to a lack of ambition or capability but the absence of critical, career-defining opportunities that are often the result of effective sponsorship. Sponsors not only champion their protégés for pivotal assignments and roles but also ensure their achievements and potential are recognised at the decision-making table. This advocacy is especially crucial for women, who face unique barriers such as limited access to influential networks, biased perceptions of their potential, and the chronic underrepresentation in key, profit-and-loss roles.


The 2022 Women in the Workplace report, published by Lean In and McKinsey & Company, found that White women made up 29% and women of color 19% of entry-level positions. However, looking at the C-Suite, White women occupied 21% of those positions and women of color only 5%. How does the representation of women shrink from 48% to 21% as one progresses up the career ladder? One answer is sponsorship or, rather, a lack of it.  


Research from the Center for Talent Innovation found that 71% of sponsors are the same race or gender as their protégés. The 2022 Women in the Workplace report found that although 33% of entry-level positions are occupied by white men, by the time they get to the C-suite, that number has almost doubled to 61%. Seramount research reported that 78% of corporate leaders tap their inner professional networks to fill vacant roles, networks that do not include a single person of color for 91% of white executives. For women, particularly women of color, to advance into senior leadership, they need to be sponsored, and they need white male sponsors. 


If the goal is to get more women into the senior ranks, it’s not enough to teach women to develop the ‘right’ skills, competencies and mindsets — and then send them back to an organization that still puts up the same barriers to advancement. 




The spectrum of sponsorship. From more private to more public career helping relationships for women in the workplace.


  • Classic mentor: provides personal advice and support privately, with no more at stake than the time invested.

  • Strategizer: shares insider knowledge about how to advance in the organization, outlining a strategy that will help fill in any developmental gaps that may be a barrier to advancement.

  • Connector: makes introductions to influential people in their network and ‘talks up’ the sponsored employee with peers.

  • Opportunity giver: offers the sponsored employee high visibility projects or roles (for example, giving a key presentation or running an important meeting).

  • Classic advocate: the sponsor advocates publicly for an individual, typically in a succession contest for a significant role, with his or her reputation at stake.


This spectrum is used to teach women about what kinds of help they need to ask for and obtain in a series of ‘career crucial’ conversations with their sponsors. 


Strategies for cultivating sponsorship for women in the workplace


  • Prioritise power in sponsor selection: the effectiveness of sponsorship hinges on the sponsor's ability to make significant decisions. Potential sponsors should be well-positioned within the organization, having a seat at the table where crucial career-advancing discussions occur.

  • Embed sponsorship into leadership programs, specifically designed for women. This includes setting clear expectations and training for both sponsors and protégés on how to navigate these relationships effectively.

  • Facilitate authentic sponsor-protégé relationships: authenticity and trust are the bedrock of effective sponsorship. Organisations should foster environments where sponsors and protégés can build genuine connections, facilitating open communication and mutual understanding.

  • Encourage active advocacy: sponsors should be prepared to actively promote their protégés, leveraging their political and social capital to advocate for their advancement. This might involve championing them for high-visibility projects, endorsing them in succession discussions, or facilitating introductions to other influential leaders.

  • Iterate and improve: continuously gather feedback from both sponsors and protégés to refine and enhance the sponsorship program. Understanding what works and what doesn’t is key to creating more impactful sponsorship experiences.


Sponsorship matters a great deal in the workplace

The introduction of strategic sponsorship programs within organisations can catalyse the advancement of women into leadership roles. By actively advocating for their protégés, sponsors can help dismantle the barriers that have historically impeded women's progression. Moreover, sponsorship benefits extend beyond the individuals involved, contributing to a more diverse, inclusive, and dynamic leadership landscape that enriches the entire organisation.


As the corporate world strives for gender parity in leadership, the transition from mentorship to sponsorship could be the breakthrough strategy needed. By fostering powerful advocacy relationships, companies can ensure that talented women not only reach their full potential but also contribute to reshaping the future of leadership.

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